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Report on Strategic Planning at Eckerd College
April 17, 2002
"Ultimately, strategy is about what to do next, and next after that."
Helmar Nielsen, Eckerd College Trustee
This paper is a report on where we are and where we are headed with developing a strategic plan for Eckerd College. It was presented at the April 17, 2002, faculty meeting; copies will also be shared with other members of the institutional community.
Preparing to plan
A college strategic plan proposes an answer, or set of answers, to a relatively simple question: What changes are needed at this institution, and how are they linked to the mission and basic values of this college? A second question is implied: How do we pay for them?
A first task, then, of strategic planning, is to describe in formal terms the mission and the values of the College. I have, in a sense, been doing this in an informal way since I stepped on campus in July, trying to articulate what I believe you collectively want Eckerd College to stand for. At the opening Convocation, at the Inauguration and at many times and places in between, I have repeated my take on the institutional values and mission of the College.
I think it is almost time to revisit and update our language formally about mission and values, but I want to hold off on that for a while for two reasons: First, we need to know more about Eckerd College before we hang out a new statement of mission and values -- and by "we" I mean faculty, trustees, staff and others. The things we don't know about this college are substantial -- some of which I will mention in a minute when I describe the first phase of any thoughtful strategic planning effort, which is usually called "environmental scanning."
But the second reason I want to hold off on formally "redelineating" our mission and values is that we are simply not ready yet. In the best book ever written on strategic planning for higher education, Academic Strategy, George Keller, who marched with us in the installation ceremony at First Presbyterian Church last month, says:
Before an institution begins to shape an academic strategy for itself, it should be sure that it is well managed. It needs to tighten up before it tries to reach out and move ahead. It needs to be certain it has adequate information on which to base decisions...
I once called on an elderly, well known planner who had recently retired for the third time. I asked him what wisdom he had to impart after his lifetime of disappointments and achievements. He said, 'A thousand little things. A thousand little things. Forget the Grand Plan. Of course, you must have a direction, but concentrate on the details. Make sure your airplane is in excellent shape before you take off into the sunrise. I've seen how many great plans crash because organizations didn't straighten out the details of their operation first.'
Just as a university can be plodding and contentious, it can be ambitious beyond its means or capability. A college may not be ready to plan. First things first. Before strategic planning, it is wise to concentrate on good management. 1
Building from the customer back
A similar point was made a few weeks ago in an article about IBM and its hugely successful CEO, Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. The article appeared in the New York Times. When Gerstner arrived at IBM in 1993, the company was foundering. Gerstner was widely quoted as saying, in response to questions about his vision for the future of IBM, "The last thing IBM needs now is a vision." 2
One of the first things Gerstner did, and it is an exercise that might be instructive for all of us as well, was to read the previous strategic plan. The article goes on,
As a former McKinsey consultant, he asked first for the IBM strategic plans, current and recent. There were plans aplenty, he found, strategic blueprints for each division, even down to the product level. By the end of his first month, Mr. Gerstner, who always carries two briefcases of reading material when he travels, had read thousands of pages of strategic documents.
The reading left him enlightened -- and appalled. IBM, he said, was filled with smart people who had recognized the industry's major technological and economic shifts. Yet IBM had repeatedly failed to respond. 'Part of the culture was a tendency to debate and argue and raise every issue to the highest level of abstraction,' Mr. Gerstner said. 'The process almost became one of the elegance of the definition of the problem rather than the actual execution of an action plan.' 3
Does the world of debate and argument and elegance of definition sound familiar? I thought it might. That's one of the things that defines an academic culture -- and there is nothing wrong with it, except that it doesn't usually lead to a clear plan or action. The article goes on:
So, a few months after arriving at IBM, when he said the last thing it needed was a vision, he was declaring a break with the old culture of introspection and foot-dragging. Had he spoken of vision at IBM, he said, he knew it would have started 'a yearlong debate.'
'And we didn't need the vision,' he added. 'We needed to save the company economically.' Instead, he gave marching orders to the IBM troops. 'We're going to build this company from the customer back, not from the company out,' he said. 'That was the big message from my first six months in the company, that the company was going to be driven from the marketplace.' 4
If you read "marketplace" in our institutional terms to include prospective students, residential, PEL and non-credit, parents and politicians, and current and prospective donors, both individual and corporate, the parallel between our situation and that described by Gerstner becomes obvious. It does not mean that we will develop our values or our educational programs based simply on a straw poll of high school students, any more than IBM was going to quit being a technology company and become a hosiery mill. But we, like IBM, have to fashion a future, an immediate and a long-term future, based on a thoughtful combination of what we have now and what the strategic opportunities are.
Now the truth is that we have already begun strategic planning at Eckerd. We have already begun that first phase I've mentioned, "environmental scanning," which is simply an aggressive attempt to find out where we stand, internally and externally. We are doing this in a variety of ways, and doing so not simply to get ready to make some strategic decisions, but as essential elements of managing the College well.
Our internal scan, for example, makes it clear that among the areas we need to focus on are:
- College Landings and College Harbor, for which we have a number of plans, scenarios and focused committee work -- all aimed at putting distance between the College and real estate ventures;
- The College's structural budget deficit, which we now have a plan to eliminate next year;
- The College's attrition problem, for which we have a committee headed by the Dean of Faculty and the Dean of Students;
- Endowment management, which is receiving top-level attention from our Board of Trustees Investment Committee;
- Trustee leadership and governance, which is the focus of a committee headed by Board Vice Chair, Grover Wrenn;
- Student residential and social life, which is receiving top-of-the-list attention from Dean of Students Jim Annarelli and a network of committees involving faculty, students and staff;
- Athletics, which is being scrutinized brilliantly by an advisory group under the leadership of Acting Athletics Director and Professor of Rhetoric, George Meese;
- Church relations, which is being explored and tested and rethought under the leadership of Vice President Ben Jacobson;
- Technology, and how we can and should use it to enhance our teaching and mentoring and service to students, which is the current focus of Associate Dean for Faculty Development Kathy Watson;
- Our need for institutional support for sponsored programs and research, which a good number of you, individually and in groups, have made clear to me. I have asked Lisa Mets, who has a distinguished background in this area, to begin talking to faculty to identify their needs, ideas and aspirations. I have also asked her to talk to funding agencies and foundations to identify corresponding opportunities and to begin putting together an office to assist faculty and staff in preparing proposals for outside funding. Lisa will continue, for now at least, to serve as my executive assistant and secretary to the Board, and to work 15 hours a day for Eckerd. And she will also work closely with Dean Chapin and Vice President for Advancement, John Crowley, in her new duties as Director of Sponsored Programs.
- Facilities: Our physical needs and opportunities are, as you well know, being analyzed and planned by the superb team headed by Adam Gross. We know we have great physical needs for both new and renovated facilities, as well as for more thoughtful programmatic, environmental and social uses of our campus, and we expect to make achieving our physical master plan a centerpiece of our strategic and fundraising plans.
- Business and Finance Office: We are still building a business and finance office. We need fiscal policies and procedures, improved cost controls and budgeting processes, and much better financial communication with collegial chairs and others in positions of budgeting responsibility. Janice Stroh had made a good start in this area by developing monthly, integrated financial statements and cash flow reports, and by updating and improving our personnel policies and procedures.
We are also assessing the performance of our facilities maintenance program as well as our food service operation. Both of these must be absolutely first-rate programs for us to achieve what we want to achieve at Eckerd College, and as you know and they know, that requires a cultural change for our vendors and for us: All of us must take more responsibility for our physical environment and we must have better communication and performance among all sectors of this community on standards for maintenance and housekeeping.
- ASPEC: When I learned of Merle Allshouse's retirement last week, I asked Norm Smith, who is highly respected by all segments of our community, to step in as interim ASPEC director. Under his capable leadership, representatives of ASPEC will work with faculty and others to conduct an assessment of ASPEC and draft a strategic plan for ASPEC: Twenty years in, what is the vision and plan now for this unique program?
- Advancement: Vice President Crowley and his staff are intensively assessing all aspects of our advancement program: Annual fund methodology; administration of annuities; frequency, format and content of reporting to donors; our institutional symbols and printed messages, and how we can make better use of the dollars we spend on them.
- Our excellent PEL program, for which Vice President Jim Deegan and his staff are reviewing new initiatives to address the changing landscape of the adult student marketplace resulting from dramatically increased competition from the public, private and proprietary sectors.
- Finally, and maybe most importantly, we need to bring a whole new level of focus on student recruitment: I have appointed a committee to begin thinking about student recruitment after Hallin. As you know, Dick intends to desert us on July 1, 2003, after more than 30 years with the College and a mere 23 or 24 years as dean of admissions and financial aid. We need to get ready for that momentous event by thinking through the marketing and recruiting strategies we employ now and ought to employ, so that we can maximize our strategic position and future positioning, and so we can be looking for the right skills to follow Dick Hallin as the institution's key income generator and provider of our reason for being: Capable, thoughtful, imaginative students. We should use this opportunity to assess the ways we recruit and assess prospective students, including how and even whether we use such devices as SAT scores.
This is a partial list, but you get the idea, I hope, that we have a lot of internal assessments and management reviews going on that will result in both better management of the College and in the kind of preparation we need to develop thoughtful strategic priorities.
I won't go into as much detail, though I could, about our external environmental scan. It certainly includes: The work that Jessica Korn, our institutional research director, is doing to assemble comparative data and measures of the College vis-à-vis our peers, competitors and "aspirational" peers; in addition to her work in conducting research supporting many of the committees I have already referenced; our search for possible advantageous linkages with other area institutions including the USF College of Marine Science and The Poynter Institute; evaluating the role the College plays and should play in the local community (this effort is being directed by Jim Deegan and John Crowley); reconsidering a more active role for the College in the development of state and federal public policy; reviews of our corporate and banking relationships; and so on.
A strategic planning advisory group to oversee the process
Some time in the 2002-2003 academic year, when we believe we are sufficiently well managed and know enough as a result of these and other scanning, study and research efforts, I intend to appoint a strategic planning advisory group to work with me and my staff to review where we are and what our strategic opportunities seem to be. I would expect that group, which will include faculty, staff, students, representatives of the PEL program, ASPEC, trustees, alumni and, perhaps, representatives of the Tampa Bay community, will assist in preparing a draft plan that will be subjected to review, comment, revision and, in some subsequent form, endorsement by the faculty and approval by the board of trustees.
Key principles of planning
Five key principles should, in my view, govern the process of putting together a plan.
1. The objective of the strategic plan is to improve the College's financial and/or educational position, responding to internal and (primarily) external opportunities for enhanced success. The objective is not to achieve success for a different college -- so one of our key tasks is to declare what this college is, what its fundamental values and structures are.
2. Responsibilities for the plan differ: The strategic initiatives of Eckerd College are, ultimately, the responsibility of the trustees of the College, while the operational plan/programs and actions to carry out those initiatives are the purview of the staff and faculty. In other words, what is done is the prerogative of the trustees; how it is done is the prerogative of the faculty and staff of the College. The line between what and how is not always clear, but we must work together to do our best to respect that line. We must also do our best to educate each other about what our responsibilities entail. For example: Trustees need to be fully informed about the actual strategic opportunities for the College, and faculty and staff should help them be as informed as they can be about those opportunities. At the same time, well-informed trustees can provide good advice to staff and faculty. The president's role is to make this separation of responsibilities work. I need to put together a process that makes institutional sense, and I need to be sure that the plan is one that I can articulate with sincerity and genuine enthusiasm. A strategic plan should not be the president's plan, but it should be one the president is willing and able to own.
3. The plan must be nimble because conditions change, and because one advantage, indeed, a strategic strength, of a small college is that it can be nimble. It can move quickly if and when it needs to, much more quickly than our larger competitors. I suggest the timeline for the plan should be 2 to 10 years.
4. The plan must be developed by consulting those who will carry it out, not out of a sense of noblesse oblige or good public relations, but because the plan will not have the support of those who were not involved in its design, and those who do not support it will not work to realize the plan. Consequently, we must seek ways to involve trustees, alumni, donors, faculty, staff and students in the development of the plan. This value leads to the next, which is...
5. The process for creating the plan is as important as the plan itself because without a good process, the plan won't have the support it needs, and because the plan will need to be updated and perhaps modified as time goes by. This may mean the process will take longer than some think it should, but speed is not the priority in this effort.
Planning and action
Let me conclude this report with three points:
First, George Keller makes a critical point that we all need to focus on from the start when he writes,
One of the epiphanies of ... strategic planning is that planning and implementation should be concurrent, not divorced. If they are done in two entirely separate steps, plans tend to go unused by the unconvinced or wary line officers. Planning should ooze out of meetings and encounters almost unnoticed; and parts of any strategy should be championed by the very people who will need to implement it.5
For us this means that we are not going to wait for the end of a strategic planning process to act; we are going to act strategically when it is clear that the strategy makes sense for us.
Each initiative must have a financial plan
Second, it is not enough for a strategic initiative to be a good idea, or even a good idea that has widespread support. To be taken seriously, a strategic initiative must have a feasible financial plan. We must have a feasible plan for funding each of our strategic moves, whether that funding comes from reallocation, private gifts, increased tuition or fees, extramural public support or other income revenues. Our plan will be fiscally responsible.
The third point is the issue I have saved for last. Missing in what I have laid out here is the strategy for our academic programs. I have saved it for last because it is the most important, and it takes us back to where I started, with what we are, and what we value as an academic community.
We have at least five big clusters of questions for our residential academic program, and some of these apply to our PEL program as well: Questions of curriculum, calendar, utilization of faculty, major programs, and community.
- Our curriculum questions include these: What do we want our graduates to know, to have done, and to be able to do when they graduate? Do we want all students to have a study-abroad experience? Do we want to support undergraduate research widely? Is the Western Heritage in a Global Context course still appropriate? Does the course need more science and/or scientific method, more environmental focus, more middle-eastern or Asian focus? More religion? Does it need to be a longer sequence? Is it too much for freshmen? Is our language requirement sufficient in this global age? Is "Quest for Meaning" meaningful enough? Challenging enough? A true capstone experience?
- Is our calendar right? Too inflexible? Should residential courses, or at least some of them, be offered in more PEL-like units? Do Autumn Term and Winter Term have the desired effects? Or does Autumn Term make Fall too long for freshmen? Should we have a program that enables students, at least the most energetic and academically accomplished, to graduate in three years?
- Is our use of faculty the best we can do given our resources? Is the all-faculty teaching of WHGC appropriate? Are there good alternatives to our current course loads? Is our early retirement plan still a good management tool? Are we providing the kinds of faculty support and professional development opportunities we should?
- Should we develop two or three or four highly visible programs to attract students in addition to marine sciences? Which ones? How supported? How interdisciplinary are we? Should we be? Are there other programs or majors that we should develop?
- And my fifth cluster of questions regarding the academic community is the one we started with: How do we build, or rebuild, and how do we articulate a common vision of what it means to be a faculty, a community, a college -- here, in this place, built on our own talents and interests and commitments, and keeping faith with our past?
It has long been Eckerd College's goal to be among the best undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the country. One could say that the strategy here at Eckerd College has always been to take advantage of the youth of the college (since you can't take advantage of the age of the College) and to some degree to take advantage of the location of the College. Youth is the driver for a focus on innovation, and perhaps idealism; and location is the driver for focusing on marine science, environmental programs, ECSAR and the other waterfront programs. So, one reading of the strategy at Eckerd is to say that it has used innovation and location to achieve its goal. Whether these values are still paramount is an open question, but one that we will eventually answer as we articulate a vision of the future for ourselves and our College.
As so many of you and so many students and alumni have told me, we have a tremendous turnaround taking place here: Student morale is skyrocketing, our financial picture is steadily improving, and our administrative organization is probably the strongest Eckerd has ever had. One week last month we raised an additional 2.5 million dollars for the library, and 1.3 million dollars toward the year's deficit. That is a good week by any standard. These gifts are investments in you, in the work you are doing, and in the lives you are changing with your tutelage, your care for your students, and the high standards for your work, and for theirs, you set and hold fast. We clearly have lots to do together, but together, as I said to you at Convocation last September, we can do anything.
1 George Keller, Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education, 1983, The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 122.
2 Steve Lohr, "He Loves to Win. At I.B.M., He Did." The New York Times, March 10, 2002, p. 11.
3 Ibid., p. 11.
4 Ibid., p. 11.
5 Keller, p. 129.